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Busting Thanksgiving myths

Turkey gets too much blame for making you sleepy

Topics: Behavioral Health, Service Lines, Screening and Prevention, Methodologies, Performance Improvement

November 21, 2012

With Thanksgiving day looming, a series of articles investigated several common myths about the holiday.

How many calories will you eat? Not as many as you think
An often-cited Calorie Control Council estimate suggests that the average American will consume more than 4,500 calories on Turkey Day, but a New York Times' "Thanksgiving Help Line" test finds that the number is likely closer to 2,500.

To determine the average calories in a heavy Thanksgiving meal, Times' "Well" writer Tara Parker-Pope identified foods generally consumed during the feast and used online calorie counters to estimate the overall calorie count:

  • Four ounces of dark turkey meat with the skin (206 calories);
  • Two ounces of white turkey meat with the skin (93 calories);
  • Big spoonful of sausage stuffing (310 calories);
  • Dinner roll with butter (310 calories);
  • Cup of mashed sweet potatoes with butter, brown sugar, and marshmallows (300 calories);
  • Half-cup of mashed potatoes with butter and gravy (140 calories);
  • Two-thirds cup green bean casserole (110 calories);
  • Dollop of cranberry sauce (15 calories);
  • Spoonful of roasted Brussels sprouts (83 calories);
  • Slice of pumpkin pie (316 calories);
  • Slice of pecan pie (503 calories); and
  • Two dollops of whipped cream on top (100 calories).

According to Parker-Pope, a full meal added up to 2,486 calories. With a few glasses of wine and breakfast, "it’s certainly possible to binge your way to 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day," Parker-Pope writes.

But that much food would be physically uncomfortable for the average American, according to Parker-Pope. An average stomach can only hold about eight cups. Moreover, consuming about 1,500 calories in one sitting releases a nausea-causing hormone.

"Another reason to pace yourself and avoid a gluttonous binge is that big meals can raise the risk for heart attack, blood clots, and gallbladder problems and make you a dangerous, drowsy driver on the way home," Parker-Pope writes.

Does turkey really make you sleepy?
Meanwhile, many people typically blame an amino acid called tryptophan, which is supposedly found at a high level in turkeys, for their post-dinner drowsiness. But "turkey contains about the same amount of tryptophan as chicken, beef and other meats," Ferris Jabr writes at the Scientific American.

Instead, it's likely that the carbohydrate-rich side dishes, such as mashed potatoes and stuffing, stimulate release of the hormone insulin, which increase the amount of tryptophan in the blood relative to other amino acids. That "means more tryptophan gets into the brain," Jabr notes.

Thanksgiving also includes a number of other factors, ranging from the outsized meal to "the arguing—I mean, socializing—with extended family," that may tire out participants, Jabr writes.

How to have a healthy Thanksgiving
According to not-for-profit insurer EmblemHealth, embracing simple behaviors can make for a much healthier Turkey Day. For example:

  • Stay active by including some physical activity on Thanksgiving day;
  • Eat breakfast to curb your appetite during the feast;
  • Lighten up recipes by limiting butter and oil and by trading out creams for fat-free yogurts;
  • Use portion control;
  • Limit alcohol;
  • Eat slowly; and
  • Focus on being with family and friends instead of the food by playing games and socializing (Parker-Pope, "Thanksgiving Help Line," Times, 11/16; HealthDay, 11/17; Jabr, Scientific American, 11/20).

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